There’s something in the air this weekend, and it isn’t just a lengthened hangover caused by staying up all night on Thursday to watch the general election results come in. Across the board, the 2014/15 season is ending with a splutter rather than a climax of any description, and a familiar feeling of stratification is starting to fall over the competitions that we might have hoped would be reaching boiling point by this time. Chelsea won the Premier League last weekend in an appropriately stop-start manner, with a missed penalty and rebound against Crystal Palace, whilst even the first legs of the Champions League semi-finals lacked much of the sparkle that has set them alight in recent years.
It is in the Premier League, however, that this stratification feels the most pronounced. With Chelsea having already bagged the league title, the other three Champions League places are already just about decided, with Manchester United having a four point lead over Liverpool in fourth place and three games left to play but neither side playing particularly wonderful football at the moment.. It almost feels as if the players of both teams are already wishing this season over.
The media keeps trying, bless them, and over the last seven days websites and newspapers have been plastered with advertisements for Sky Sports’ Super Sunday, trumpeting tomorrow afternoon’s match between Chelsea and Liverpool. The corresponding fixture last season at Anfield last season was something approaching an end of season showdown at the time, but this season’s match at Stamford Bridge will be little more than a coronation procession for Chelsea, an opportunity for their supporters to rub Liverpool noses in the fact that it’s now a quarter of the century since they last became the champions of England themselves. As the 2014/15 season wheezes towards its finale, though, one just gets the feeling that the majority of us just want it over and done with, and tomorrow already feels like the least super “Super Sunday” of them all.
We’re taking our kicks where we can get them, of course, and the Premier League club that can expect the most media coverage in this country over the next couple of weeks or so is the free-falling Newcastle United, whose plummet towards the relegation places at the bottom of the table is inducing a mass outbreak of rubber-necking from supporters with little else to entertain them at this point of the season. Yet a win this afternoon against West Bromwich Albion at St James Park – and this, of course, is a West Bromwich Albion team that has scraped its way to forty points and Premier League safety for another season, and might as a result feel as though it has little to gain by exerting itself too hard this afternoon – will more or less guarantee their safety for another season, digging the club out of a John Carver and Mike Ashley-shaped hole into which it has dug itself since Christmas.
One from Newcastle United, Leicester City, Hull City and Sunderland will accompany Burnley and Queens Park Rangers – who are both far adrift enough at the bottom of the table for hopes of their avoiding the drop to be of the mathematical variety – but it’s difficult to generate too much excitement about the Premier League when one just one relegation place is all that the division has left to offer in terms of entertainment with three or four games of its season left to play. Perhaps this serves as little more than a reminder that professional sport is not merely just another branch of the light entertainment industry. The aims and values of those who are most intimately involved in it all have little to do with entertainment. They want to win before anything else, and if this means that broadcasters end up with diminished audience viewing figures because they’ve done that earlier than the last possible moment on the last day of the season.
The Champions League feels similarly lop-sided at the moment. The first legs of the semi-finals played last week were between three extremely familiar faces – Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich – and one club – Juventus – for whom appearing in the latter stages of this competition has become something of a novelty in recent years but who could hardly be classified as David lining up to take one of European club football’s Goliath’s down a peg or two. And whilst seeing Bayern Munich get brushed to one side in their first leg match last weekend, it has to be said that seeing it done by one of the best two or three players on the entire planet is likely to please the aesthetes rather than romantics amongst us.
All of this leaves us with the Football League play-offs, the semi-finals of which are already in full flow. In the Championship, the team that neutrals may have followed, Brentford, have already stumbled in their first leg match against Middlesbrough and, whilst interest in the match between Norwich City and Ipswich Town is likely to inflame local passions, it’s difficult to avoid the feeling that this match-up might have felt a little more intense had it been played at Wembley near the end of this month. Perhaps things will start to glow a little more brightly once the identities of the finalists are known. Perhaps the FA Cup final will provide a little end of season sparkle which will send the 2014/15 season on its way with a flourish that much of the previous nine months has barely deserved. For now, though, it feels rather as if we’re stuck in a hinterland somewhere between the football season and the close season. Roll on, 2015/16. This season feels as if it has slipped into a coma already.
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